Don’t you stay at home of evenings?
Don’t you love a cushioned seat
In a corner, by the fireside,
with your slippers on your feet?
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Such a peaceful retirement may be hard to imagine for an author with 149 hits on Amazon.com and 42,500 more on Google, but famed poet Gerald Locklin is closing in on the conclusion of a 43-year career at CSULB.
The member of the English Department since 1965 feels his five-decade stay on campus has gone all too quickly. “It was a colorful campus in 1965 and the students were wonderful,” recalled the Long Beach resident. “They still are. I’ve always had a good feeling about CSULB. I’ve loved it here and the fact it was so close to the beach gave the campus a distinct character.”
Locklin is included in the prestigious Oxford Companion to 20th Century Literature in English, has been reviewed in the London Times Literary Supplement, and has written poems and essays for such English periodicals such as Ambit, Tears in the Fence, and Ragged Edge, and for American ones such as New York Quarterly, Poetry International, 5 AM, American Scholar, Wormwood Review, and Slipstream. He is an expert on the works of poet Charles Bukowski and authored Charles Bukowski: A Sure Bet. His poetry collections include The Firebird Poems, The Life Force Poems, and, most recently, New Orleans, Chicago, and Points Elsewhere and The Cezanne/Pissarro Poems. He was co-editor of New Geography of Poets in 1991 with poets Edward Field and Charles Stetler, a text still in use in classrooms nationwide. He is the author of more than 110 books of poetry and fiction and thousands of works in periodicals, and has seen his work preserved by the CSULB University Library in its Special Collections. He earned his bachelor’s (1961) at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY and his M.A. and Ph.D. (1964) in literature from the University of Arizona.
“It’s hard to overstate Gerry’s impact,” said Stephen Cooper, a member of the English Department since 1984. “He’s one of the most widely published poets of our time, one of the most admired faculty members on our campus and one of the most influential instructors for generations of our students. And if you’ve ever witnessed his rendition of `I Did It My Way’ at one of his poetry readings, you’ll never forget it.”
“I set out to be a writer from an early age,” Locklin said. “Writers write and I wrote as much as I could. I’m still backed up on projects. The worst part is the typing, especially for a technophobic two-fingered typist. And when you add the marketing and correspondence — these peripheral aspects of literary work — they take much more time than the actual writing, and are much less fun.”
Locklin says he has always tried to be accessible. “My poems are written in plain language and aimed at a wide readership,” he said. “A lot of them were intended to be humorous, but you never know if people will laugh with you or at you. In the old days, some were set in the Forty-Niner Tavern and other watering holes, but in recent years my oasis has been the chlorinated H2O of the YMCA pool.”
Part of his accessibility is his refusal to take himself too seriously. “If there was one word to typify my teaching career, it would be fun,” he said. “I always wanted it to be fun for me and I always tried to make it fun for the students. Ideally, I never saw any reason why learning shouldn’t be fun. There aren’t many people who get to make their living doing something they enjoy as much as I enjoy teaching. It is has been a great privilege to have taught here all these years, with students I have thought of as friends, and colleagues for whom I have the greatest respect. Teaching has truly been its own reward—though I haven’t sent back any paychecks either.”
Locklin will be remembered for many achievements not the least of which is his contribution to “stand-up poetry.” The phrase came from an article he co-authored in the 1960s for the Minnesota Review with the late poet Charles Stetler titled “Edward Field: Stand-Up Poet.” Field’s first volume of poems had been entitled “Stand Up, Friend, With Me,” Locklin recalls, and he’s more than willing to credit Stetler with the term “stand-up poetry,” whose multiple meanings they illustrated in the article.
“Field started out as an actor and was a good performer of his poems,” Locklin said. “Poetry after Allen Ginsberg and the Beats became more of a performance art. Our article discussed the return, on campuses and in local bookstores and coffee houses, of the oral tradition. Poetry became more easily accessible to listeners and readers. It grew closer to popular music. It could address any subject on any level of discourse. All the boundaries were coming down. Plus, there was the aspiring to be a stand-up kind of guy or woman. Charles Webb’s Stand-up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology from the University of Iowa Press, is an outstanding text which I’ve used in numerous classes. I’m very happy to be in it. Charles really popularized the term and vastly expanded the audience for entertaining poetry. He’s a prime example of the first-rate colleagues with whom it’s been such an honor to be associated.” Webb, who has taught at CSULB for two decades, is an much-accomplished poet in his own right.
Locklin has seen critical reassessments of colleagues such as Bukowski and he hopes such assessments will not narrowly pigeonhole his work. “I’ve had a diverse career,” he said. “I’ve written a lot of fiction, but it’s been easier to find the time for writing poems during the intervals teaching has allowed. I hope my readers take a broad overview and discover works that appeal to them.”
He points with special pride to the CSULB Library's special collections where many samples of his work are preserved. “There are boxes and boxes of books, magazines, letters, manuscripts and ephemera,” he said. “I’ve sent and continue to send them everything, including 50 letters from Bukowski. If readers are interested in Bukowski, that is a first-hand way to get to know him. There are other significant collections of my work, but nothing like what we have in Special Collections. They have virtually everything.”
Cooper added that the Department of English, the English Student Association and the College of Liberal Arts will host a series of events the week of May 5-9, titled “Long Beach Celebrates West Coast Writing and Writers.”
“In honor of Gerry’s retirement and in order to launch his latest book, there will be a reception on the evening of May 8 featuring readings by a number of writers, including Gerry,” said Cooper. “Tickets will go fast, so stay tuned for ordering information.”
Not for Locklin is the poetic narcissism of a Byron. “I have limited talents,” he said. “I’m no good at electronics or machines. I try to sing and dance at poetry readings, but I don’t think anyone would pay me to do it—they might pay me not to. I took piano lessons from the second grade to the end of high school. Then I quit playing almost entirely when I realized I was never going to be a great pianist. What I’ve done fairly well, I hope, is writing and teaching.”